Paul Tremblay is the author of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and The Little Sleep. He is also the recipient of two Bram Stoker Award nominations. Here he talks to Empty State about the internet’s ambiguities and the role they play in his work.
In A Head Full of Ghosts, the internet brings fresh ambiguities to the possession story by arming Marjorie with knowledge that she wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. Was this something you intentionally set out to explore, or a challenge you had to overcome?
I absolutely wanted to make use of the information and disinformation we now have access to in A Head Full of Ghosts. The blogger in the novel is vital to the story. In addition giving a window into the psyche/mindset of one of the important characters, she’s a one-woman Greek chorus, commenting, debunking, and interpreting the events of the novel so that the reader becomes unsure of what it is that actually happened to the family. That state of ambiguity and unsurity is important to the story and reflects the anxiety of our supposed “information age”.
A Head Full of Ghosts explores the impact of new media on memory and identity. How did you go about plotting a novel where the truth is so kaleidoscopically obscured by the half-truths presented to others? Did you have a truth in mind while writing it, or is the truth ambiguous to you as the author?
I knew going into A Head Full of Ghosts that I wanted to build the ambiguity with all the parts and players. There’s an emotional truth to the novel I think (I hope), one expressed by Merry when she asks (and I’m paraphrasing here, somewhat) “What does it say about you or anyone else that the televised psychotic break of my sister wasn’t horrific enough for you?” I purposefully tried to build a supernatural case and a non-supernatural case for the reader, so no, I didn’t go into the book with an answer to that question in mind. Though I have my suspicions.
Online, we’re haunted by the past: abandoned blogs, the memorialised Facebook profiles of the deceased, the social media pages of ex-lovers…and if we want to bury some part of our past, there’s nowhere to hide the bodies. The hauntological nature of the internet lends itself so naturally to the gothic, and yet with a few exceptions, most contemporary novelists are choosing to ignore the internet entirely. As someone who has embraced digital media in their work, why do you think others are avoiding it?
One of my pet peeves is the idea that as a writer you can’t include the technology and communication methods of our time because it dates the work in some twisted, lame-brained notion of “deathless prose”. Honestly, get over yourself. To presume that people will be buying and reading your precious book in twenty or ten or even five years post publication is utterly foolish. It’s difficult enough to write a story that people want to buy and read right now without handcuffing yourself to some subjectively idealized cultural age that is to be the setting for all fiction forthwith. Are cars allowed in this age or is it horse and buggy? Cordless phones or rotary? Surgeons or leeches?
The funny part is, if you do your job well as a writer and make sure every detail you incorporate is integral and serves the story in some way (and isn’t there just to be shiny), then your story will be able to be read and understood and enjoyed by future generations (should we survive and still want to read books). William Gibson’s opening to Neuromancer still works within the context of his brilliant novel even though today’s younger readers likely haven’t seen a fuzzed out dead TV channel.
In Disappearance At Devil’s Rock, the characters communicate using Snapchat and Minecraft. Were you concerned about keeping the technology and medium relevant, or explaining it to readers who may not be familiar with the platforms?
I didn’t struggle with the relevancy part in terms of my worrying if readers would think Snapchat and Minecraft were relevant to their experiences. The only relevancy I worried about was to the story; they had to be there for an important reason.
How much of that information to explain and put in was tricky, though. I am not an expert in either Snapchat or Minecraft, but have been exposed enough to them to be dangerous. I researched and used my son as a Minecraft expert. The temptation is to include all you learned because, heck, that was hard work learning, right? While editing drafts I cut out a whole bunch more stuff about Minecraft because it slowed the pacing down too much and some of the information I’d included initially wasn’t necessary to the story.
As a writer, how essential do you feel it is to include digital media when writing about the way we live today?
While it’s difficult to write a story about our now (particularly in the US and UK) without addressing media, I think it really depends on the story you are writing. In A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, the use of media and of tech was active in affecting the lives of the characters and building the ambiguities of the story. For the new novel I’m writing, the story has different needs. My characters are in an isolated cabin with no cell phone signal but there’s satellite TV. I hope it’s not a boring, repetitive answer, but it only goes in if it serves the story.
Do you feel some forms of media should not be used in literature, or is everything fair game for a writer?
No way. It’s all fair game. Use it, but use it well.
Thanks Paul. Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
I am working on a novel to be called The Four right now. It’ll be published summer 2018. The novel will be a twist on a home invasion kind of story. I think it’ll fit nicely with A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock thematically.